Day 78: Megalomania
Ashgabat Travel Blog› entry 111 of 260 › view all entries
Thanks to the people I met here and/or travelled with: Arthur (Germany)
I checked out of my hotel (at least I got my money back) and went to Arthur's place. I could stay in his flat tonight, so I wouldn't have to spend another night in a bug infested hotel.
Last night I had told Arthur of my plans to take an overnight tour into the desert, rather than just crossing it in a day by taxi or bus. As I have only 5 days here I want to make the most out of my visit and see as much of the country as I can. Even though a tour costs $ 250, whereas a shared taxi would not cost more than $ 10 (or alternatively I could fly to the bordertown of Dashogus for $ 17!!!)
Arthur liked the idea and had decided to join me. He hadn't seen anything of the country yet, so this was a good opportunity for him.
To my surprise the phone was answered by a Dutch lady. She happened to know Arthur's flatmate and even knew who Arthur was, despite not having met him. The expat community in this country is so small that everybody knows everybody.
We decided to go ahead with this agency and went to the agency to book it. Unfortunately it turned out that Arthur's visa does not allow him to travel to the border regions, so he would not be able to come to Konye-Urgench and Dashogus with me. He decided to come along for the first day anyway and find some kind of transport back to Ashgabat the next morning.
Then it was time to explore the city. First we went to Independence Square, where I had already been yesterday, only now we walked the whole length of the Soviet era park towards the university building. Here the true extend of the presidents' (former and present) megalomania became clear. The university building doesn't look all that old, but nonetheless a new one , occupying three city blocks, is being built right next to it. The new university is huge, and all shining white marble and gold. Across the road is the Presidential palace which is getting a makeover, being expanded to about twice the original size. Why, one might ask, since the president doesn't even live here. He lives up in the mountains where the climate is nicer.
We hired a taxi for a few hours to drive around in the Berzingi district. This is the completely artificial, surreal district which was the icing on the cake for former president Niyazov's city planning. All white marble palaces interspersed with monuments, fountains and parks. Ashgabat lies in the middle of the desert, so obviously there are dozens of fountains in the city, even though half the population here doesn't even have running water at home!
Berzingi is so absurd, so over the top, it is unlike anywhere else in the world. And the white marble city is not even ugly, on the contrary, but it is just completely useless. The buildings are either ministries, apartment complexes, office blocks, hotels or just empty façades. And because of the restriction on signs or advertisement in the city it is very hard to tell what is what from the outside.
There used to be a village here, but the people living in the area were all displaced, with very little compensation provided to them.
The Altyn Asyr (Golden Age) shopping centre is one of those places. The taxi driver had no idea where it was and when we finally got there there was no sign on the building saying it was a shopping centre. The building is shaped like a pyramid and has water flowing down on all four sides, making it the largest fountain in the world. Inside everything is empty. There are stores and the stores have staff, but there are no customers. Not a single one. Nobody is buying anything here.
We tried to take the elevator up to the top floor to have a look at the area, but this was not allowed. In fact, it seems nowhere in the city is there an opportunity to get a bird's eye view.
A bit further we stopped at the Monument to the Independence of Turkmenistan, which looks like a giant toilet plunger. The monument is surrounded by several pretty cool iron statues depicting various types of Turkmen tribes. The biggest and brashest statue is reserved for Niyazov though, his golden statue radiating in the sun atop a large fountain.
Beyond the Independence Park is a long strip of big hotels.
We drove towards the Kopet Dag mountains, to the starting point of one of Niyazov's most idiosyncratic projects: the walk of health. While the idea is great, several walks through the lower hills of the Kopet Dag, the execution is as ridiculous as everything else in this city. The entire length of both walks (8km and 37km respectively) is made out of concrete and marble steps.
We decided we were lazy today and did not walk the walk (it was too hot anyway) and went back to the city.
I liked all of this though. I guess I have a thing for megalomania. I am one of the few who thinks the seven Stalin towers in Moscow are actually quite pretty. Similarly, I think the white marble city that Niyazov created actually has some merit. Notwithstanding the fact that it is awful for all those people who saw their neighbourhoods razed to the ground in order to make room for the palaces
Other ridiculous buildings and sights in the city included an Olympic stadium (just when the Olympic games will be held here, I don't know), a huge Ice Rink (we're in the desert, so it makes sense to build an ice rink, right?) and the best of all: Turkmenbashi's World of Fairytales.
To be honest, it is not as bad as it sounds. The way I heard Tom talk about it I expected some really gritty place, you know, like the fairground in Chernobyl. But it wasn't like that, in fact, this place seemed more alive than the theme park I visited in Tbilisi. At least this one had visitors! The locals seem to love it. No wonder, there is very little entertainment in this city, and with an entrance fee of $0.07 plus $0.19 per ride, at least it is something people can actually afford in this county (unlike the shiny new apartments which are being built in this city).
The locals call it Disneyland, but in fact, the real Disneyland is just beyond the confines of the park. The buildings in Berzingi and the centre of Ashgabat all look like they belong on a film set, or, in fact, in Disneyland.